Education wasn’t always delivered in the way to which we have become accustomed today.
In the Middle Ages, education was seen as a charitable public duty, not the state’s responsibility. Schools and colleges were established by wealthy citizens along with the trusts that would fund them; scholarships were provided for poor pupils. During Elizabeth I’s reign, education was officially designated as a charitable activity, which came with legal and fiscal privileges. In the years that followed, the Anglican and non-conformist churches set up many schools across the country. It wasn’t until 1833 that the government gave an annual grant to two charities that supplied a church and non-denominational education for poor children. As the Industrial Revolution drew population off the land and into competitive urban environments, so literacy and numeracy grew amongst the inhabitants.
The Education Act of 1870 obliged the state to step in and pay school fees for families who could not afford them, compelling at the same time all children between 5 and 13 to attend school. The state has since gradually taken on the role of establishing primary and secondary schools, monitoring and raising the school-leaving age, creating new colleges and universities and generally opening up education to more and more people. In a sense, government was forced to react to vast social changes and to try to control large movements of people and to channel behaviour if it was to have any hope of maintaining the status quo. Left to its own devices, it might have been felt, the nation could collapse into anarchy under the strains of the technological and demographic shifts that were occurring.
The idea of the privately-run, charitable and religious culture of education, though, was already there.
The ’11 Plus’ examination developed as a way of ‘streaming’ those academically able children from those who were not so capable, resulting in a separation in society too, as those who failed the exam were seen to have less ‘prospects’ than those who passed and went on to prestigious and well-run ‘grammar schools.’ In the twentieth century, Labour’s Anthony Crosland asked for plans for schools to become ‘comprehensive’ and both Labour and Conservative governments pursued the policy in the following decades until most grammar schools lost government funding and were absorbed into the new comprehensives. A higher quality education would now only be available to people with money, which created other issues.
Many parents battle the resulting dropping standards of schooling by not placing their children in schools at all, or concentrating on after-school tutoring.
Teachers have also found it increasingly difficult since the state stepped in in 1870. Teaching qualifications were eventually imposed by law for state teachers.
As state control of education has grown, so have imposed egalitarian measures and vast quantities of centrally-driven regulations, leading to the closing of some schools and the over-inspection of others. Education on a grand scale has gradually become a tool of social engineers. This can be laudable but tends to fence off the landscape somewhat.
A successful education system is one that brings together children and the knowledge that they need.
The goal of all educational policy should be to bring children from all walks of life closer to the academic, social, intellectual and technical capital of the society as a whole.